To provide the best possible service, we use cookies on this site. Continuing the navigation you consent to use them. Read more.

Lesley Lokko, Hope

LM
What you are doing now with the school in Johannesburg is very important because ‘hope’ is related to future, which is related to education and to the new generation, so I would start from your experience at GSA. Can you tell me more about how did the school started and you intend to develop it?

LL
I suppose the first thing I’d say – which is really important in the context of architectural education in Africa – is that South Africa is like, and yet at the same time, is also very different from the rest of Africa. I’m constantly being reminded that ‘South Africa isn’t Africa’, and that’s both true and not true. The educational infrastructure is very much in place and the universities are relatively well funded but many of the issues that South African students face – an overwhelmingly Western canon, outdated teaching methods, lack of confidence and the search for an authentically ‘African’ voice in architecture – are the same as those faced by students all over Africa. The Graduate School of Architecture (GSA) at the University of Johannesburg is one of the newest schools on the continent, if not the newest school, and it has a very particular history that made it relatively ripe for change. The University of Johannesburg itself is a new university, the result of a merger between an all-white institution and an all-black Technikon (akin to a trade or technical school), so the university’s mandate was always political, always forward-thinking.
When I arrived at the Department of Architecture in 2014, the Master’s programme had only been going for a couple of years and was still trying to find its voice and feet. There were only a handful of students and there wasn’t a long, historical, difficultto- shift culture or tradition in place… so it was possible to start something new, and fresh.
The second thing I’d say is that the culture of political activism is still very much alive in the University as a whole. The student protests in South Africa in 2015 and 2016 really crystallised around two issues: transformation (moving from an elitist, all-white and very Eurocentric tertiary education culture) and decolonisation (the bringing of African perspectives into the academy and canon).
Across the country – and, by extension, the continent – you could feel the potential and demands for change in the air. We simply took advantage of that spirit of activism and put certain things in place – a new curriculum, a different pedagogical model, bringing much younger staff on board – which, in the end, have been transformational in themselves. Suddenly, without even trying to, we found ourselves putting students’ experiences, histories and cultures at the centre of the learning process, and it’s resulted in really unusual and unexpected outcomes.
It seems to me now, looking back at it, that the shift released a kind of hunger and enthusiasm for creativity and new creative possibilities and challenges – and not just the desire to problem-solve, which has been the dominant paradigm in architectural education here for decades. For me, the experience of the past three years has been one of hope: hope for new voices, hope for a new way of thinking, hope for new agenda for architectural education, certainly within South Africa, but in other places on the continent, too.

LM
New voices and a new agenda: I think this is very important because we need to create new critical voices strongly related to the idea of a contemporary form of awareness. South Africa is a very political context, which is calling for more democracy, equality and more possibilities for everybody. The school is living in a very specific political moment but at the same time it also represents something emerging all over Africa because the inequalities are part of the dramatic political-social situation the continent is living through.

LL
Well, it’s as though there are two speeds of change across Africa: one began sixty, seventy years ago with the ‘winds of change’ that swept across the continent, beginning with Ghana in 1957. The other, more recent changes occurred in the 1990s in Southern Africa, including Namibia, where democracy arrived much later. It’s also important to understand that Africa has experienced two very distinct types of colonisation: colonies and dominions. The dominions – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and, to perhaps a lesser extent, former Rhodesia and Kenya – have a very different relationship with Europe and Europeans, who settled in those countries in a way they never settled in the colonies (Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, etc.) For us (and I’m speaking here as a Ghanaian), there were never the same terrible battles over land, language, culture, identity, as have emerged in places like South Africa. The inequalities that are the legacy of apartheid are far more deeply entrenched in southern Africa than they are in the rest of the continent, and are inextricably bound up in race, language and identity – issues that are at the very core, the very root of who people are.
The recent political demands for change – particularly in education – have been strongest and most vocal in the place where the psychology of colonisation has been the most damaging. It’s a contradictory situation in many ways: in the place that has the greatest capacity to bring about change (and I’m only speaking about education here), the wounds are the deepest and therefore the hardest to heal. In many other parts of the continent, the scars have healed but the infrastructure on which tertiary education depends so heavily just isn’t there. But that’s just how it is. Africa is full of potential and contradiction simultaneously. But instead of viewing it as hopeless, as many do, I’ve found that the more challenging and complex a situation is, the more creative our response. So for me, at least, the contradictions are part of the hope I’m witnessing. Tension is a necessary condition for creativity. And I’m not talking about fanciful creativity: I’m talking about innovation, the ability to think laterally, to think outside of the box, to be inventive, to be propositional and proactive, not just pragmatic and reactive.

LM
What do you think about the educational programmes you’ve started? Which are the elements able to forge a new critical attitude?

LL
The educational programme we’ve embarked upon – what we’re calling Transformative Pedagogies (in a not-so-subtle nod to Beatriz Colomina’s ground-breaking Radical Pedagogies) – is not just one element, but is more about a combination of many different things. On the one hand, yes, there’s a need to change the structure of what has always been a very modularised system of education – teaching architecture through courses on structures, urbanism, methodology, design, research… as if these were discrete, separated issues – into a much more synthesized and blended approach, which combines, rather than separates, elements of architectural education. But on the other hand, there’s also the need to create the conditions in which voices which haven’t been given the opportunity to express themselves, are able to do so freely, creatively, intuitively. As a black South African architecture student, you are always painfully aware of lack: lack of role models, lack of your own culture, lack of your own precedents and your own canon. This makes students – especially black students, but not only black students, I have to say – doubly insecure because they are always having to overcome the perceived lack, play catch-up, learn how to speak (literally) in someone else’s ‘tongue.’ In the past twenty years or so, especially in South Africa, there’s been a welcome increase in awareness of inequality, greater demands for social justice, inclusion, equity, informality, scale… the well-known ‘problematics’ of Africa, particularly our cities. But from my perspective, this focus on one particular aspect of architecture has left many other aspects completely out of the picture – the historical, the speculative and the imaginative, the role of translation and critical thinking. But perhaps most importantly, it sidesteps the importance of architecture not just as a means to solving contemporary problems but as one of society’s most important tools for shaping the future. As outrageous as it sounds, I’ve been told on many occasions that there’s no point in teaching black students to be speculative or critical since they need jobs, not ideas. I suppose what we’re really been trying to do is to give students the ability and possibilities to find their own voices, to give them as wide a range of options with which to engage meaningfully with architecture on this continent, although probably more specifically within the South African context. But we have students from other parts of Africa – increasingly so – and their input and experiences are simply invaluable, both to us, and, one hopes, to them. We’re trying in our own small way to ‘normalise’ Africa: to make it available to students in multiple ways, not just within the developmental paradigm.

LM
This is very interesting for me because you move from the idea of being particular to the idea of being universal. From a certain point of view, which was right, African people felt like victims of the Western world, because that’s how it was, but in a way this trauma of the victims also became the reason why they had been, everything was exceptional in Africa, tragedy, poverty, abuse and this mentality reduced the possibility of creating distance a great deal,that distance that helps to create a critical apparatus which helps you to see the world, not only in Africa but everywhere else. Everything today is hyper-connected, your country can’t be the only place you think about.

LL
Yes, absolutely. One of the more damaging aspects of victimisation is isolation: the sense that you’re so unique that you don’t belong to a wider, more universal ‘picture’ or that you’re so exceptional that no one else has the right to comment or participate. I’ve experienced both here, especially as a non-South African. But sometimes distance is the key to seeing things differently. I’ve noticed over the past few years, that for the students – and for our staff, to be honest, many of whom are still very young – it’s a process, like the stages of grief. As I understand it (and I’m no psychologist!), the stages are necessary to come to a place of self-confidence, of healing. I think in this context, it’s therefore very necessary to understand that the space or place of the victim is not the only place from which you can speak. Taking students outside their context – to other parts of Africa, the world – seems to have given them the confidence and distance to see themselves differently, and therefore their surroundings differently. The vast majority of our students see themselves as active ‘agents of change’, to quote one of my colleagues, which has been one of the most pleasurable aspects of teaching over the past couple of years. To see students go from being passive recipients of education to co-collaborators in the process of shaping new canon is remarkable. Of course, the criticism is always that schools of architecture don’t deal with ‘reality’ or the ‘real’ world, and that we bury our students’ heads in the metaphorical sand, making them unfit for practice. Well, I think so-called reality is one aspect of an architect’s training, yes, of course, but I also believe very strongly that it’s the job of education at large to train or equip students to deal with things beyond current realities, and probably nowhere more so than in architecture. As a discipline, it’s intimately bound up in the past and the present, but it also uses those to speculate or propose something new. For my money, that’s where we’re failing our African students, by restricting their ‘diet’ to the problems of the here and now, forcing them to look down instead of up.

LM
I completely agree with you, in terms of the relation between being visionary and being aware of the present situation, which is the necessary balance to be an architect today. There’s been a renewed interest in African architects lately: Francis Kéré will design the next Serpentine Pavilion and I think that soon we will have our first African Pritzker Prize. Africa is producing very good architects, and at the same time is emerging as a key and important laboratory of research on human environment. What do you think is the key element that will create an African identity for contemporary architecture?

LL
The first thing to say is that, yes, the growing list of names is impressive and fantastic. Ten years ago, you might have heard of only David Adjaye… today, there’s Kéré, Adeyemi, Diabaté, Shawl, Adengo and many, many more who are emerging onto the world stage. However, almost without exception, each one of them studied in the West, generally at the very best schools. This for me is a big question: do you have to leave in order to become African? What is it about training and education ‘elsewhere’ that has opened up these possibilities for young African architects? I’m not so naïve as to pretend it’s not also to do with contacts and clients and the right kinds of commissions, but it brings up another issue, which I find very interesting. When you leave your place of origin (or your home), and venture into someone else’s territory, country or space, you are often forced to become a translator of your own identity to the ‘new’ culture in which you now find yourself. You become an interpreter. You interpret your world for others, many of whom have never seen or experienced it. I find this condition both interesting and tragic. Interesting because translation always offers up new possibilities: new combinations, new meanings and new ways of expressing things that become in themselves a new language. So, the possibilities that the condition of being an outsider provides can be exhilarating and endless (though not always so, I hasten to add). But it’s also tragic because it’s such a bloody difficult thing to do: to have to explain yourself over and over again at the same time as you’re trying to explore what that means. It’s a bit like a scientist trying to explain particle physics to a classroom of high school students whilst studying it him/herself. It’s almost impossible. You need the space – literally – to question, to speculate, to grow… for ideas to develop and mature. That’s how knowledge is produced. So, for me, it’s even more important that a really, really, really good school of architecture – or several, I don’t mean to suggest that the GSA is the only school doing interesting things – exists here, on the continent, even in this part of it that ‘isn’t properly Africa.’ It might not be, but it’s certainly closer than New York. My instinct tells me that it’s easier to do that sort of exploration here than it is in London, partly because the burden of explanation is lifted, even if only partially.

LM
Ok, so this is my really last question, which is your hope in relation to what you are doing?

LL
My hope is to build an African architecture school with a vision that is local, regional and global, a school that enables a young generation of architects to develop a critical and strong voice. My hope is for them to make work that responds imaginatively, creatively and tangibly to contradiction, crises and complexity, as well as community and culture. My hope is to produce students capable of thinking and acting intuitively, confidently and authentically. My hope is to harness the incredible power and potential of the young men and women we teach to produce an eclectic and diverse architectural culture – not just in terms of buildings or theoretical projects, but in terms of architectural thinking, canon, a new generation of academics who both practice and teach – to normalise Africa, in other words. To make the same range of opportunities and issues available to African students as they are to everyone else.

Interview . Luca Molinari

  • English
  • Italian